As In Eden, by RM Lamming

The Bible's women are given wonderful voice

Pharaoh's daughter (who rescued Moses from the Nile) is poignantly realised. As Moses prefigures Christ, so Pharaoh's daughter, left in suspended expectation of some great event, prefigures Jesus's mother.

Moving to the New Testament, Lamming gives us Martha, whose scolding becomes a power of speech twinned with the mystical, quiet gnosis of her privileged sister, Mary. The final voice belongs to the cultivated Roman, Claudia Procula, the wife of Pontius Pilate, of whose warning dream her politician husband takes no heed.

Old Testament narrative is secretive: it displays God's cryptic dealings with Israel. The tales are dark, fragmentary, incomplete, tantalising the reader's desire for intimate understanding. Their hidden and violent God flattens cities; human motives remain obscure.

The psychological complexity of the Bible narrative is generated by telling far too little. What the reader knows is enthrallingly limited. Lamming is wonderful on female bitterness, which weaves through all the tales in which vexed women pit themselves against Providence. These women are trapped in a narrow and misogynist blame-culture. They witness great events from the margin. But, through the tales, as through the Bible, thread messengers. The angel "with green eyes" visits Sarah, Lot's wife and Hagar, raising women to their own private communion with a God whose rigours they challenge in their hearts.

The Scriptural figures exist amid a majestic riddle against a hinterland of mystery and paradox, where afflictions are godsends and epic narratives root their action in comic familiarity. Lamming offers a slant as moving as the tale of Sodom is spine-chilling. Lot's wife looks back because she thinks of "the washing place, and the city women - especially the fat one with the smashed teeth and the amulets". She dissolves into salty tears. "There should," she tells the green-eyed angel who returns for her, "have been another way." This insight, preluding New Testament compassion, is a criticism of Jehovah that leads Lot's wife by the short route to heaven.

Stevie Davies's 'Kith and Kin' is published by Phoenix

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